Those high-profile, Michelin-starred spots like Alinea and Grace helped put the Windy City’s dining scene in an international spotlight, but some of the best restaurants in Chicago are the true heart and soul of the neighborhoods. From a quaint Puerto Rican storefront known for inventing a plantain sandwich to a health-focused soul food cafe proudly employing area kids, there are quite a few standouts. The best part is that these best restaurants in Chicago have garnered loyal fan followings for the local food and warm, welcoming atmospheres.
Dream Cafe & Grill
Dream Cafe & Grill, a relatively new soul food and Caribbean-focused eatery, thrives in the South Side neighborhood called Englewood. Dream Cafe stands out for so many reasons beyond its mostly local food menu offering young people healthier, made-to-order alternatives to fast food. It also serves as a beacon of hope for so many in the community who are desperately trying to rebuild the area. And the owner, longtime entrepreneur Howard Bailey, goes out of his way to hire residents of the neighborhood. The menu is a big draw for the area, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods of Bronzeville, Hyde Park, and Kenwood (where President Obama resides when he’s in town). If you can’t make up your mind on which egg roll to choose, order all three. They arrive piping hot and stuffed with collard greens, mac and cheese, or jerk chicken. That same jerk chicken may also be ordered as an entree and comes with side dishes, like brown rice, fresh vegetables, or freshly cut sweet potato fries. Other entrees include Moroccan-style chicken, glazed salmon, and a vegetarian taco dinner.
Artango Bistro, located in Ravenswood, is yet another underrated dining destination. This lively South American BYOB spot serves up sizzling entrees and entertainment. Artango is popular with Spanish-speaking residents of the area for nightly tango lessons, and its $40 prix-fixe menu sweetens the deal for date night. It’s offered Tuesday through Thursday with prime choices, like the seafood paella, grilled Angus New York strip steak, and empanadas stuffed with beef, ham and cheese, or vegetables. And, as far as that dance lesson, it’s complimentary and taught by Buenos Aires-born and trained tango pros.
El Nuevo Borinquen
Humboldt Park is home to one of the country’s largest populations for those of Puerto Rican descent. It’s also known for the famed BYOB Puerto Rican restaurant, El Nuevo Borinquen, credited for creating the jibarito. A unique local food “sandwich,” the jibarito substitutes flattened fried plantains for bread, is stuffed with steak, chicken, seafood, or pork, and topped with garlic mayo, lettuce, and tomato. The jibarito’s popularity attracts all sorts of folks to the friendly little confines of this colorful eatery. Longtime Humboldt Park residents dine alongside newcomers as well as curious visitors to Chicago, and staffers keep it lively with traditional Puerto Rican grooves.
Some of the best restaurants in Chicago offer authentic pho, but when it comes to legit atmosphere matching the classic Asian soup, one must head to the Little Saigon neighborhood, home to Pho 777, which boasts the tastiest in town. This restaurant also offers the largest variety, from beef to vegetarian and everything in between. Those dining with a large party might want to consider ordering the com phan for $105. It consists of pho, plus a whole deep-fried red snapper, stir-fried jumbo shrimp, and more. Clusters of Vietnamese families slurp bowls next to tables of slick downtowners BYOBing it in high style. Though it’s not as fancy as some of the more contemporary Asian offerings downtown, Pho 777 is clean, cheery, and welcoming to all.